First draft of a new book of ours, Symbol Plays.
I am extremely pleased to announce the new screenplay Beyond Courage by DCG member and Creative Advisor Andrew Kaplan. We’re posted his screenplay on our Screenplay Page of our website. See our site page https://desertscreenwritersgroup.com/member-screenplays/ to read Andrew’s new screenplay.
You can also immediately download his screenplay by clicking on the PDF file below.
We are proud that the Desert Screenwriting Group continues to grow into a powerful new voice in screenwriting ideas and theories and techniques. Based on the increasing levels of powerful criticism from industry insiders who are mostly DSG members and agree to address our group.
I have not yet read Andrew’s screenplay so cannot be prejudiced for the screenplay below in any way. I only know that since I left the incredible little group I started, it has grown in tremendous leaps and bounds to what it is today and, more importantly, what it might be in the future.
Of course, you’re all part of its growth, the most important aspects and elements and reasons for it.
I would than all of you. But the great achievement of the DSG for me will be when all of you simply want to thank the DSG group rather than it broadcasting out all the thank yous first. I’ve always thought that the power and true value of an online group and a meeting group is having members increase the connection between them rather than increase the number of members. This is my real desire for DSG. That it become as interactive as possible. A true community of discussion and criticism of new types of screenplays. Born in the California desert. Only two hours east of Los Angeles. But far enough out of Los Angeles (my old home town) to not be brainwashed by the LA screenwriting system.
I’m proud that we have a widely diverse group of members. Down to 16 years old up to the middle 80s. All searching not necessarily for how to write screenplays, but rather how best to communicate in our image filled world. Of course the greatest form of modern storytelling is screenplays. We are involved in the state-of-the-art methods and techniques for telling the most powerful modern stories. Currently, this form of authorship is titled “screenwriting” and it continues to evolve and change like one of the those creatures they discuss on late night radio like Coast-to-Coast. What is the best screenwriting today? Is Andrew’s screenplay, which you can quickly open below, an example of the best?
Only you can be the judge here. I have never met Andrew but certainly hope to meet him one day. I’m back here in Ohio writing this tonight, big flakes of snow falling all about. A sudden, silent, attack on our city. Falling over everything, Quietly. Silently tonight. Our first big snowstorm of the season. Yet it halted abruptly after a few hours of work on us. I hope to make it to more meetings of the DSG, hope to work on our site to make it the best site for screenwriters in the nation.
So glad all of you are part of it. And so much thanks to those (somewhat hidden leaders of this great group … Janeil, Ray and Andrew).
PS … and now, a screenplay that transports us all to a different time when things were tougher in this country … like they were in the film The Revenant I saw a few weeks ago, like the screenplay for it we have posted on our Screenplay website, like the novel I read a year ago. You be the judge on this story. Again, I have not looked at it yet. But we are so happy to start off the year 2016 with a screenplay by one of its members!
Perhaps no area of screenwriting is subject to more debate and competing theories as the number of steps in plot structure. While there is more or less general agreement on elements within screenplays, the number of steps screenplay elements take to tell stories has been under dispute for years. Partly, the dispute is caused by branding and the attempts by various screenwriting “gurus” to distinguish their “product” from other screenplay “how to” products by owning a particular number of steps in plot structure. Owning a particular number of steps is an important element of what marketing terms product differentiation, a key element in the creation of product brands.
Today, plot-step theories move from the traditional three-step paradigm to twenty-two steps. The three-step plot structure has ancient roots going back to the beginning of storytelling. In modern times it was popularized by Syd Field in his books and particular his Foundations of Screenwriting. Moving behind the three steps the next major plot structure theory is based around eight steps and knows as the “sequence approach.” The next popular plot step approach is twelve steps centered around mythologist Joseph Campbell’s famous book A Hero With A Thousand Faces and popularized in screenwriting by Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey. (Although, interestingly, Campbell actually had seventeen steps in his system). After the twelve-step plot structure approach, the next theory is based around the fifteen-step structure of of Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat book. Finally, after the fifteen steps of Snyder, are the twenty-two steps of John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story. (There are actually theories with even higher number of steps such as Eric Edson’s twenty-three step Story Solution.)
Within the extremes between the minimal three-step method to the maximum twenty-two-step method, the eight-step sequence approach holds a moderate, middle ground. Unlike the other approaches, it has an interesting background in early films. In the early days of cinema, movies started as one-reeler stories with a maximum playtime of about 15 minutes. When films stories expanded beyond one-reelers, each reel still maintained the same narrative structure because the viewing experience. But the narrative flow was interrupted every time the projectionist had to swap reels. Each sequence/reel was designed to be a mini-story within a larger story to pique viewer interest so that they would anxiously wait in the dark for the reels to change to find out what happened next. Until the 1950s, most screenplays were formatted with sequences explicitly identified. For example, screenwriter Billy Wilder labeled five sequences (from A to E) in his famous screenplay Hollywood Boulevard.
In the modern era, the sequence approach has been rediscovered and used effectively at such film schools as the University of Southern California, Columbia University and Chapman University. Frank Daniel at AFI, Columbia and USC popularized the breakdown of movie and screenplay plot into eight steps or sequences.
Yet even after technology made it possible for theaters to show a full-length film without interruption, the time frame and dramatic dynamics of the sequence persisted. In his book The Sequence Approach, Paul Gulino suggests that there are likely psychological factors at play in the viewing experience. “The notion of a feature film having eight parts (sequences) is, like all else in dramatic theory, tied to human physiology. The division of two hours into sequences of ten to fifteen minutes each also most likely speaks to the limits of human attention. In other words, without the variation in intensity that sequences provide, an audience may find itself fatigued or numbed rather than by what is on screen. In our age of short attention spans, this is a theory that needs more study.
Today, the leading popularizers of the sequence approach are Paul Gulino and Chris Soth. Gulino is a Chapman University screenwriting professor and author of the best-known book on the eight-step plot method called The Sequence Approach. Soth conducts seminars and is author of a number of Kindle eBooks on what he called the “mini-movie method.”
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Now, a new explanation of the sequence method has joined the discussion in the form of an eBook called Master Screenplay Sequences by Script Reader Pro, a collective of authors on the website Script Reader Pro. It is an excellent addition to material on the sequence approach and makes the sequence approach easier to understand in its highly packed 79 pages. Perhaps the main contribution the new book makes is that it applies the approach to various film genres such as action, comedy, drama, thriller and horror using the movies Raiders of the Lost Ark, Bridesmaids, The Virgin Suicides, Collateral and Wolf Creek.
Like Paul Gulino’s book, Master Screenplay Sequences shows how the sequence approach fits into the traditional three-act structure of screenplays of Act I, Act II and Act III. Act I contains the first two sequences while Act II contains the next four sequences and Act III the final two sequences.
The collective authors of the book do not want to toss out the three-act structure but rather clarify other things going on. As they note, the three-act structure is “All well and good, but we think this approach is a little random. Free-floating, even. Maybe there’s something else? Something going on under the broad strokes of three act structure that anchors the plot points and makes it easier to create continuous conflict in the protagonist’s journey?” This something, they argue, are sequences.
The Script Pro collective notes that each sequence can be viewed as a “mini-movie” with a specific goal for the protagonist, and a resolution that takes him or her further or nearer to achieving the overall goal for the screenplay. Each sequence, therefore, has the same three-act structure as the overall screenplay, with the climax to each equally a major turning point in the screenplay.
The authors of Master Screenplay Sequences observe screenwriters are admonished with phrases like “throw obstacles in the way of your protagonist” or “stick them in a hole and then try and get them out of it,” they note that sequences provide a solid structure to this conflict, making it easier to write. In effect, rather than randomly throwing things at your protagonist in free-floating plot points, sequences provide a series of “mini-movies,” each with rising conflict and resolution.
In this sense, each sequence has a beginning, middle and end that can be viewed as individual “acts.” The authors call these “segments” and they work in exactly the same way as regular acts in a screenplay.
- Segment 1: Raises a dramatic question/crisis that the protagonist attempts to solve during the sequence.
- Segment II: A series of strategies are followed, ending with a final chosen ploy and/or event, either an “up” or a “down” moment.
- Segment III: This new strategy is followed and the sequence goal is either achieved or fails.
The authors point out that It is important to grasp how closely these segments enable sequences to match the structure of the overall screenplay by using these same six major beats within a screenplay:
- Inciting Incident
- Call to Action
- Big Event Decision
- All is Lost / Joy
While each of the eight sequences of a film are similar by having the three segments and containing key beats of the story, the sequences are different in that each one performs a different function based on their order in the screenplay. The Script Pro writers define the key purposes of the sequences as 1) Call to Action 2) Big Event Decision 3) Decision Success or Failure D) Midpoint E) Midpoint Success or Failure F) All is Lost/All is Joy G) Climax Or All is Lost/All is Joy and H) Denouement or Climax. Placed into traditional three-act structure, these sequences appear like below.
Sequence 1: Call to Action
Sequence 2: Big Event Decision
Sequence 3: Decision Success / Failure
Sequence 4: Midpoint
Sequence 5: Midpoint Success / Failure
Sequence 6: All is Lost / All is Joy
Sequence 7: Climax OR All is Lost / All is Joy Success / Failure
Sequence 8: Denouement OR Climax
Adding the Segments and the plot points to a sequence creates the following structure. For example, viewing the structure of Sequence A above with the three segments and six plot points, it would look like the below.
Sequence A: Call to Action
Call to Action
Big Event Decision
All is Lost
The above segment structure should be applied to each of the eight sequences in the screenplay. As the authors note, just as in the overall film, the protagonist’s fortunes in a particular sequence go from a positive to a negative or vice-versa. It is this back-and-forth motion of each sequence ending alternately on a positive or a negative that gives a screenplay its feel of a roller-coaster ride.
For instance, the Script Pro writers observe the roller-coaster ride might be carried out by Sequence E ending on a high point followed by Sequence F ending on a low point at the end of Act Two. This sets up the grand finale of Sequence G, a high point and the climax to the script. Similarly, the protagonist’s fortunes change within the sequence itself, from a positive to a negative, or vice-versa, also helping to create a sense of motion and change. So, if the sequence begins on a high point — Indiana Jones enters the Well of Souls having found the location of the ark; chances are it’ll end on a low point — the Nazis steal the ark and lock him in the Well of Souls with Marion.
In the section of the book called “Anatomy of a Sequence,” the authors provide more detail about what is transpiring in each sequence. The purpose of each of the major sequences closely matches that listed by Paul Galino and Chris Soth.
- First, a hook to excite the viewer’s curiosity. Then, the exposition answering who, what, when, and where. Show a glimpse of the life of the protagonist before the story gets under way. This first sequence ends with the inciting incident.
- Protagonist tries to reestablish the status quo disrupted by the inciting incident, fails, and is faced with a worse predicament. Gulino says that this sequence poses “the dramatic question that will shape the rest of the picture.” This is the end of the first act.
- The protagonist attempts to solve the problem presented at the end of the first act.
- The solution from the last sequence is seen to fail, and the protagonist tries one or more desperate measures to restore the status quo. The end of this sequence is the midpoint/first culmination/crisis, which brings a major revelation or reversal. The audience should be tempted to guess the outcome of the story.
- The protagonist deals with the ramifications of the first culmination. Sometimes new characters are introduced, or new opportunities discovered in the fifth segment. This segment may also deal heavily with subplots.
- Last sequence of the second act, and the second culmination. The protagonist has exhausted all the easy courses of action, and directly addresses the central dramatic question. The audience should be tempted to guess the outcome of the story, although the obvious answer may often be a mirror opposite of how the film actually ends.
- The apparent solution of the central dramatic question in sequence F shows its problems here. The stakes are raised. The effect of a long dangling cause may occur. The story is seen in a new light, and the protagonist might need to reverse his goals.
- The tension created by the inciting incident is truly resolved. Consider this resolution in light of the hints from the first and second culminations. Any remaining subplots are resolved. There may be a brief epilogue. The last sequence may in some way (visually?) recall the first sequence.
In a basic manner, the sequence approach highlights the back and forth struggles of the hero throughout the story perhaps better than other plot methods. One gets the feeling that one is on a linear path through the story by the other methods but the sequence approach highlights that the hero fights a number of battles through the story, winning some and losing others. Always starting with a new goal at the beginning of each sequence. At the same time, those using the sequence approach need to realize that there is a progression towards a final goal through the screenplay and that it is more than just a number of winning and losing battles.
Approaching screenplays from sequences offers one of the most enlightening ways to grasp screenplay structure and write screenplays. However, it has remained largely misunderstood or not understood at all even after its resurrection at USC with the work of Frank Daniels. The short new book Master Screenplay Sequences should help screenwriters understand this important part of screenwriting. It is not meant to be the definitive book on the subject, only a short but very useable method for applying the method to screenplays. Those interested in making this plot structure method their main way of plotting screenplays are well-advised to check out Paul Gulino’s larger, academic book, The Sequence Approach. Or, look at some of Chris Soth’s eBooks or seminars on the subject.
To purchase Master Screenplay Sequences go to http://www.scriptreaderpro.com/screenwriting-books. It comes as a PDF which you can download to your desktop or laptop. For chart of the various sequence approaches discussed see Screenplay Structure Sequence – Updated.
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Finding the number of steps or sequences in a screenplay seems to be somewhat a search for a screenwriting Holy Grail. Much of the creation of various steps in screenplays has been, as we observe, the creation of gurus, authors and teachers who want to differentiate their product “brand” from others and the steps in structure offer the best way to do this.
In order to begin to understand the number and nature of the steps in a story, there is still much work to do and much research into areas outside of the craft and art of screenwriting.
In this sense, much of the area of sequence is associated with the symbolism of cycles and finds symbolic correspondence to a number of other areas such as mythology, religion, drama, astrology, alchemy, media and psychology. For example, psychological sequence has been explored in important books like Jung’s great disciple Eric Neumann’s Origin & History of Consciousness, Sigmund Freud’s sexual stages, Erick Erickson in The Life Cycle Completed, Jung’s Symbols of Transformation and Stanislov Grof’s Beyond the Brain.
Religions sequence has been explored in a number of books but particular in Edward Edinger’s The New God Image and The Christian Archetype. Drama sequence explored in Gilbert Murray’s Ritual Forms Preserved in Greek Tragedy. Astrological sequences in Jung’s Aion and Planetary Sequence, alchemical sequence in Jung’s Mysterium Coniunctionis and media sequence in Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media.
For more information on sequences outside screenplay sequence see a PDF of the author’s work in progress titled Sequence (PDF).
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John Fraim grew up in Los Angeles, California. His parents were friends of many people in the film business. He is a graduate of UCLA and Loyola Law School and currently President of Desert Screenwriters Group and GreatHouse Stories.
His sites are http://www.desertscreenwritersgroup.com and http://www.greathousestories.com. He is a screenwriter and has written a regular column for Script Magazine. He is author of the book Spirit Catcher on John Coltrane and Battle of Symbols about the global dynamics of symbols. He has also had numerous articles and essays published online and in print. He is considered a leading authority of symbolism and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
An amazing tool I am using on Final Draft 8 is the Script Note function in the software program. You can add a note that might go on for pages and you can add the note at precisely the point you think it needs to be added in the script. Anywhere you want to add notes to your screenplay you simply click the icon at the top of the page and a small box appears. You can write pages and pages in the boxes. When you close, it goes back to the little box after the word you placed it after. A word in the Scene level. Or in the Exposition/Action level. Or the Character level. There are three major categories you might chose to write notes about that remind you of things to add or distract from the screenplay. You can then print out a report that gathers all of the notes you have written in your screenplay naming the page the notes are in. Then, you can PDF the report so readers or collaborators can read them.
Many things have been written on the creative process of screenwriting. Yet little attention (it seems to me) has been placed in looking at the Script Note Report of a screenwriter who has been faithful to using them throughout his or her screenplay. An honest Script Report takes a screenwriter who uses it as the key source of comment on the script. All his key concerns need to go into these notes. The people he has spoken to. The other places a character or action or event can go at a particular point in the screenplay. The point in the screenplay when the roads converge like the Robert Frost poem.
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I find that the content in the Script Note boxes exist just outside the story enough but are able to comment truthfully on it like an anxious parent might observe the growth of his or her own child. The child is the action-filled content of the story. But the Script Note function seems the ultimate outside observer of the story. Outside observations that need to be considered and incorporated into a screenplay story. Adding, subtracting or modifying Scenes. Adding, subtracting or modifying Exposition/Action. Adding, subtracting or modifying Characters. In effect, they are that “glow” that Joseph Conrad once said “enveloped” the overall story. Each one of the notes can go on for pages and are able to hide in small little boxes the size of the words of the screenplay.
Perhaps someday these Script Notes parts of a screenplay might be viewed in light of the theories Carl Jung’s analytical psychology and the theories and ideas of symbolism. I think that Jungians would have field days with truthful and thick Script Notes from serious screenwriters. I think that collaborators on scripts would find them of great importance in understanding what their collaborator(s) wanted to do. Better than a phone call or a Skype or text message in that all can be said at the most important place it needs to be said in the creation of a story.
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In a way, Script Notes itself represents a type of symbolic “context” Joseph Conrad defined as a “glow” enveloping the “content” of a story. An example of these comments are in the Script Note Report (below in PDF for first 20 pages of my script in progress The Once And Future Cowboy.) I think these have a tremendous importance in seeing a screenplay from a different perspective. The screenwriter wears a different “hat” in writing Script Notes than worn during the onstage process of the creation of the screenplay on that stage called white pages.
These screenplay Script Notes are just enough under the conscious, action level of the screenplay the hard-pushing screenwriter dwells in most of his or her days, just enough under the surface of the screenplay (or perhaps above the surface?) to be able to comment very truthfully on the on-page work. Actually the box is sitting on the page disguised and made small by the software.
Things written into Script Notes can serve as offstage voices reminding the screenwriter that he or she is being watched from a certain outside position. Outside the positions inhabited by the old narrators of recent fiction. Now this voice might best be viewed in the Script Notes sections of screenplays. The real person behind the screenwriter might inhabit these invisible boxes more than he or she does in the visible pages of the screenplay. Screenwriters place various Jungian archetype characters into their screenplay.
Of course, the one requirement is that the word and ideas in the small boxes be translated into scenes, action or character dialogue. No more of the rambling words in the boxes. The word involved in creating a performance are now needed. Not the words representing the notes on the performance. They need translation onto the pages of the screenplay. This presents a considerable challenge. Yet the Script Notes exist at the precise moment in the screenplay story. The moment they need to exist. Options. Questions. Comments. Dialogue.
Someday, a type of community might evolve around Script Notes. A more powerful community than even that exists around the Final Draft 8 mothership.
One of the more confusing aspects of screenplays are the various “schools” created around the various steps in story structure. Originally, getting a hero through a story was a 3 step structure from the 1) beginning to the 2) middle and then the 3) end of a story. But during the flood of screenwriting books and theories in the past 20 years, the 3 steps have grown into more sequences. Today, major screenwriting gurus, methods and schools are associated with these particular number of steps. We’ve created a chart illustrating this below. For a clear version of the chart see the PDF of Screenplay Structure Sequence below.
Theories of Screenplay Steps
“This isn’t the Warner Brothers lot, Riggan. This is the city, and this is how we do things.” Mike Shiner to Riggan (Birdman) Thomson
Congratulations to the two winning screenplays this year. The original award goes to Birdman and the adoptation Award to The Imitation Game. The full screenplay for Birdman is available in PDF below. The Imitation Game is progably somewhere on the Internet to be downloaded.
I’ve decided to read Birdman and have gotten to twelve pages in it and to a fascinating event and turning point in the story that turns all into a new direction. The reader is standing outside the story and observing the hero character. A quirky person producing a play off-Broadway.
An angry actor in his later years who is into yoga and is putting on a play and spending the last part of his fading money on producing and starring in it. In the first seconds of the screenplay we see the hero levitating in the air. This confronts the reader with an initial sign that fantasy might be mixed with reality and that it might fall on the reader to “unpack” this mixture and provide some type of narrative to the story. Is this image of leviation a key to understanding fantasy and reality in this story?
The story studies the psychology of being an older male super-hero in the later years of a career. Most realize that heros can’t remain heros all their lives. (At least not in that same media where they “made” their carves out their original star status.) Heros move on and give way to new ones. If the old heros are musicians they go on tours. But what careers or retirements do true super-hero characters go to and where do they do this? Here, a super-hero has lived in Manhattan. Probably saved the city countless times during his old years when he was the famous character Birdman.
Yet, what happens if they are famous old comic book characters, once superheros to a whole generation? What happens to them? What of the ones who are now out of being a hero in Hollywood films? What of those few still trying to make a living in the business of acting. Here, we see our hero producing an off-Broadway play which he is also starring in. Interestingly, from a symbolic point of view, he has left the west coast of LA and moved to the eastern center of theater in New York City. Without saying it, the films says in subtext that this is a battle is some ways between the film symbols manufactured in Hollywood and the theater symbols manufactured on Broadway. A contest within the subtext between Hollywood and Broadway.
In the screenplay, we are faced to answer this question in the first seconds of the screenplay when the hero is seen levitating in the air. A man is levitating. Are we to believe this image or question it? This dicotomy is immediately established between reality and fantasy. The true, outward events of the story, many would say the hero wants to establish a successful play. Yet the odds and consequences against him seem much greater than just this. While he wants to do this, the hero needs to (inner, unconsciously) become a true hero again in his old age.
Is this a sign that we are to doubt out eyes at times in the story? A clue to us that fantasy will be presented in the story. If so, it might be upon us, the reader and ultimately the viewer, to approach the story from one perspective, one narrative position and voice.
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Around page twelve of the script an interesting revelation comes to the reader through showing the reader that the actor we are watching was once a super-hero. Not just any super-hero but the super-hero of our generation. Or perhaps even a few generations.
At around page twelve, the reader suddenly realizes that what he or she thought was just a crazy actor’s own story is actually our story also since we realize that the actor in the first ten pages of the screenplay was an old super-hero of yesterday in America. Not just for fathers. But also for grandfathers. And perhaps for all of us who have lost our old heros in life. A time when a hero was a real hero. When John Ford directed films. Now, though, an aging hero is forced into semi-retirment from films during his golden years. He is producing his first off-bradway play. The acting job in the theater is below his dignity in many repects. He is a franchise film character. Representing an entire line of comics and serial tv and books and toys.
The reader is now invested in the story. From young to old. For hasn’t everyone had heroes and heroines in their past? And don’t they wonder what has become of them? Has their hero let them down? Disappeared? Gone into another business? The hero’s story is in effect is their story also. And therefore, the reader or viewer now sees the story in a new way. The hero has not said anything. Only the context of his life has been revealed.
And we realize that he was the hero for many of us at one time in our lives.
The old hero has disappeared for a number of years.
Does his audience welcome him or her back?
There has to be a Birdwoman followup.
2015 Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay
During this year, I’ve returned to reading a lot and have re-read Huckleberry Finn. Read a number of other books and articles and essays and stories during the year. But the pieces that stand out in my mind are The Hunger Games, I A Pilgrim and The Lawgiver. The Hunger Games by a young woman. Pilgrim by a middle aged screenwriter. And Lawgiver, by probably the world’s oldest and most famous author, Herman Wouk.
The three seem destined to particular audiences although all of them offer first-rate suspense and drama. Hunger Games for the younger demographics. Pilgrim for the thriller, spy market out there. And The Lawgiver, for those who believe in a new way of telling stories. Not through narrative voice but rather the collection of epistolary objects like office memos and recordings, voice mails, hotel notes, all sorts of ways except the regular voice of a narrator (present in 99% of novels today).
The one hundred year old author has written one of the great self-reflective pieces on Hollywood, Perhaps one of the great views of Hollywood ever put on paper. Brilliance in the memos between the studio people and the creative people. Of course it shows author Herman Wouk’s prejudices though the years but all of this comes through via such subtle means, like they are totally untouched by the guiding hand of the author of the story.
What Happens Next
A History of American Screenwriting
The book is one of those unusual beings that falls between different genres. It is not another “how to” book from a screenwriting guru. But neither is it a biography or tell all book of the industry. Although it could easily qualify for these two types of books about Hollywood. The Academy Award Winning screenwriter Marc Norman (Shakespeare in Love) has crafted a book centered on writing for Hollywood. Yet, at the same time, he has created the greatest, and most interesting history of Hollywood and the early years of the movie business I’ve ever read or heard about.
One continues to plow through this brilliant book on American screenwriting, watching that strange breed called screenwriter develop from an embryo in the early years to that more complex, sophisticated, person he or she is today. The importance of this book is that it views the history of the film business through the eyes of a screenwriter.
This offers quite a view. Perhaps a perspective far beyond those from other fields. The best perspective, hero, to tell a story. The perspective of a modern screenwriter.
Posted here is one of the greatest screenplays ever written. Written by that refugee from Europe named Billy Wilder an Austrian-born American filmmaker, screenwriter, producer, artist and journalist, whose career spanned more than 50 years and 60 films. He is regarded as one of the most brilliant and versatile filmmakers of Hollywood’s golden age. Wilder is one of only five people to have won Academy Awards as producer, director and screenwriter for the same film (The Apartment), and was the first person to accomplish this.
Wilder became a screenwriter in the late 1920s while living in Berlin. After the rise of the Nazi Party, Wilder, who was Jewish, left for Paris, where he made his directorial debut. He moved to Hollywood in 1933, and in 1939 he had a hit when he co-wrote the screenplay for the screwball comedy Ninotchka. Wilder established his directorial reputation with Double Indemnity (1944), a film noir he co-wrote with crime novelist Raymond Chandler. Wilder earned the Best Director and Best Screenplay Academy Awards for the adaptation of a Charles R. Jackson story The Lost Weekend (1945), about alcoholism. In 1950, Wilder co-wrote and directed the critically acclaimed Sunset Blvd.
“Bogey would invite me into his dressing-room with his usual ‘relax and have a drink.’ We would talk and sometimes a genie popped out of the whiskey bottle and off I’d go to develop the idea into a scene.” (Howard Koch, Co-Screenwriter, Casablanca)
“They are laying bets over on the RKO lot that the Orson Welles deal will end up without Orson ever doing a picture there. The whole thing seems to be so mixed up no one can unravel it.” (The Hollywood Reporter, January 1940)
(This article appeared in Script Magazine on March 30, 2014)
Sometimes, you don’t find symbols for scripts. Rather they find you. (In the same way that one’s artistic muse finds her artist). All of this relates to that atmosphere hanging over all great art that might be termed part of the symbolism of chance and synchronicity in life and art.
Most think of images when they think of symbols and symbolism. But what of external (eternal) images matched up in timing with one’s internal images? The time when the outer world and inner world are aligned with their symbols?
This all involves a concept (element) of symbolism called synchronicity, a very late theory of Carl Jung. One can debate what this concept means (and it is a worthwhile debate) but here we want to observe its operation in the world of films and literature by applying its workings to two of the most famous films in history and probably the worlds most famous novella.
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It is times like these when greatest scripts are often created in the shortest amounts of time. While some of this creation might be conscious, most of it during the production of the following seemed more unconscious, feminine. Something breaking out from in all directions from inside rather than some masculine arrow shot high up into the outside world.
One method for finding the presence of synchronicity in scripts is to select those classic scripts that have been written in the shorted amount of time. These were scripts where the symbols of alignment and opposition fell in place with their own internal power somehow.
Of course many products are created quickly – often too quickly – with a consequent fate of being forgotten just as quickly. But what if some famous products show a quick creation time? What if a pattern is found in a number of them?
Consider the interesting stories around three of the most famous products of twentieth century dramatic art – the films Casablanca and Citizen Kane and the novel Heart of Darkness. All were created in extremely short time periods. In fact, one could say they were created almost by chance, on types of “detours” from their original destinations. Was the “zeitgeist” of their times the real “author” at work behind the scenes? A zeitgeist that the artist was more involved with letting into his psychology than invading other psychlologies with his or hers.
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The Race Between Pencil And Camera
Since its original release date, Casablanca has played more revival dates than any other film in history. In the Introduction to Casablanca:Script And Legend (1973) critic Ralph Gleason writes “Casablanca summed up the morality of its time better, I think, than any other film ever has. Everybody saw Casablanca. Everybody knew the story, knew the characters, and knew the context…Casablanca was how we thought we were, all right, a pure explication of the mood in which we entered World War II.”
Howard Koch, one of the main creators of Casablanca is truly surprised at the success of the film. Koch writes in the above book that, “none of us involved in its production could have foretold that Casablanca was to have an illustrious future-or, in fact, any future at all. Conceived in sin and born in travail, it survived its precarious origin by some fortuitous combination of circumstances to become the hardiest of Hollywood perennials, as tough and durable as its antihero, Humphrey Bogart.”
Interestingly enough, there never was a planned script. It began when Warners Brothers purchased the rights to a play called Everybody Goes to Ricks but this script fell by the wayside before it reached Broadway. Jack Warner wanted a new female lead and chose an unknown female actress named Ingrid Bergman under contract to David Selznick. To pry her away from Selnick, the Epstein brothers pitched Selznick on an idea for a movie that would advance her career and her value to Selznick. They were good enough to have Selznick loan them Miss Bergman.
As Koch notes, the troubles began at this time. “The Epsteins confessed to Hal Wallis that the story with which they entertained Mr.Selznick was actually a feat of verbal hocus-pocus without any real substance to provide a basis for a picture.” The scheduled shooting was only six weeks away.
Two weeks from the scheduled shooting date, Koch had about forty pages or a quarter of the eventual screenplay. “Fortunately,” notes Koch, “I had the help and encouragement of Humphrey Bogart … Bogey would invite me into his dressing-room with his usual ‘relax and have a drink.’ We would talk and sometimes a genie popped out of the whiskey bottle and off I’d go to develop the idea into a scene.”
By the day shooting commenced, Koch had roughly the first half completed. “But a vast unknown territory lay ahead,” Koch notes, “with only signposts here and there to guide me. The race was between my pencil and the camera. I began to think of the camera as a monster devouring my pages faster than I could write them. About two-thirds of the way through the production, it was a dead heat.”
Koch remembers that the final weeks were a nightmare “of which I remember only fragments. When I sent down to the set the last scene and wrote ‘The End’ on the screenplay, I felt like a weary traveler who had arrived at a destination but with only the foggiest notion where he was or how he had got there.”
But somehow the film made a connection to the symbolic archetype of its time. And Koch suggests this saying, “As I look back at the film’s chaotic genesis … I like to think it achieved its real identity by some affinity with this new searching generation.”
Was there symbolic synchronicity at work in the creation of Casablanca? The reader should be the judge. In a review attached to Casablanca:Script And Legend, film critic Richard Corliss notes that there are two theories about the film. “The first is that Casablanca is a political allegory, with Rick as President Roosevelt.” Corliss notes that “casa blanca” is Spanish for “white house.” In this scenario, a man gambles on the odds of going to war until circumstances and his own submerged nobility force him to close his casino. Corliss notes that this is read partisan politics. He commits himself first by financing the side of right and then by fighting for it. The time of the film’s action in December 1941 adds credence to this view, as does the fact that two months after Casablanca opened, Roosevelt, or Rick, and Prime Minister Winston Churchill, or Laslo, met for a war conference in Casablanca.
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An Atmosphere Of Extreme Urgency
While Casablanca was created in a fury of writing mixed with whiskey, Citizen Kane was born out of another project altogether. In the book The Making of Citizen Kane (1996), Robert Carringer notes that Orson Welles was lured to Hollywood by RKO studio head George Schaefer with a contract that guaranteed him a degree of artistic control unheard of in the industry. Welles was engaged to produce, direct, write and act in two feature length films. His Mercury Theater operation had been shut down since the flop of Danton’s Death.
By prearrangement in his contract, Welles’s first film was to be an adaptation of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness which Welles’ Mercury Theater had done as a radio show. But budget skyrocketed on the film and Schafer and Welles came to a new agreement to do another film before Heart of Darkness and use this film as collateral to finance Heart of Darkness. The film was Smiler With the Knife. But the project died and rather than continue work on Heart of Darkness, Welles let it die also.
By this time, Welles had been in Hollywood for five months with nothing to show for it. The January 1940 Hollywood Reporter writes, “They are laying bets over on the RKO lot that the Orson Welles deal will end up without Orson ever doing a picture there. The whole thing seems to be so mixed up no one can unravel it.”
As Carringer notes, “It was in this atmosphere of extreme urgency that the idea for Citizen Kane came into being.” Welles found Herman Mankiewicz who was between jobs and recovering from an auto accident. Mankiewicz went out to the desert to a guest ranch in Victorville with John Houseman and a secretary. Actually, Mankiewicz was sent out to the ranch to keep him out of the way because of his drinking problem.
It was at the ranch, during March, April and May of 1940, that the first installments of Citizen Kane were completed. The material that Mankiewicz and Houseman sent from Victorville was 250 pages long and called American. It was about a publishing tycoon. The shooting script was finished on July 16.
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Heart Of Darkness
A Sudden Flurry Of Activity
The two years before Joseph Conrad wrote The Heart of Darkness, one of the masterpieces of English literature, were filled with very little production. Yet an incredible flurry of activity possessed him when he began writing Heart of Darkness and the entire novel was finished in a little over a month.
This is an incredible feat of almost spontaneous creativity. In The Last Twelve Years of Joseph Conrad (1928) Richard Curle remarks, “I remember Conrad telling me it’s 40,000 words occupied only about a month of writing. When we consider the painful, slow labor with which he usually composed, we can perceive how intensely vivid his memories of his experience must have been…and how intensely actual.”
And, critic Ian Watt adds in Conrad In The Nineteenth Century (1979) that “after nearly two unproductive years, in little more than two months, and in the midst of several further anxieties, Conrad had managed to write, revise, proofread, be more than paid for, and even see beginning in print what was to prove one of the earliest and greatest works in the tradition of modern literature.”
This type of speed in composition it leaves little room for conscious contemplation and consideration of the intricacies of novel plotting and character development. More than Conrad writing his great novel it is more likely that it was writing him. The unconsciousness was coming through and expressing itself in symbolic terms. The result was that archetype of Conrad’s age was approached. It may never have happened if the book was written and revised and rewritten. For a few months of time, Conrad was a captive (one again) of the muses of the symbolism, art, chance and synchronicity.